This topic discussion and its further documents are waiting to be written by someone on the Southern Hemisphere, Africa or India, for instance, where “youth” is the preferred term (to adolescence, young people, etc.) and where it refers to people about 15 to 35. For most of our material on youth, please turn to our topic, “Adolescence.”
We have found it best in teaching and in this Encyclopedia to use the terms youth, adolescents, and young people as general synonyms. (Teenagers obviously refers to those 13-19.) Adolescence (or youth) we take to be the transitional age between childhood and adulthood. But we must be careful to heed other definitions and usage.
The All Africa Conferences of Churches issued, in 1993, a Handbook on Ecumenical Youth Ministry in Africa (compiled and edited by Setri Nyomi). It described youth in this way (pp. 16-17):
Though looking simple, (the definition of youth) is a very complex question. While some countries consider only teenagers as youth, others start after the teenage years and continue until as much as fifty years old. Many…define youth in terms of feeling young…It therefore seems arbitrary to fix any ages in defining youth in Africa. The only reason why we are forced to yield to an arbitrary pegging of ages is that by the existing definitions those who are actually below the age of 30 have been marginalized by those who are above that age; who ‘feel young’ and therefore feel they have a mandate to be the bosses over the actually young.
Even the United Nations agencies which work with youth, such as UNICEF AND UNESCO, have chosen to be flexible with pegging ages. At one point they recognized the ages of 15-25…African young people’s organizations follow similar lines when they peg the upper limit age at between 30 and 35 years old. This handbook assumes that youth are persons whose ages are generally fifteen to thirty years old.
Fr. Gabriel Mbogo, from Murang’a, Kenya, writes in the African Ecclesial Review (AFFER, Feb, 1996, Vol. 38, Number 1, what we must take as the last word on this continued controversy:
Youth is a debatable issue, but the one explanation generally agreed upon is that it is a state between childhood and adulthood.
Youth therefore begins with puberty, somewhere around 12-14, and continues until a person is ready for marriage and career.
In the same journal (AFFER) Adam K.A. Chepkwony, a lecturer at Moi University, Kenya, has these important things to say about youth:
The term youth describes a vigorous and lively period of life between childhood and maturity. For the purpose of this paper, youth or young people will be used to encompass people between ages 12-25. This is a very important group in any society. In all communities the adults depend on this section of the population for the continuation of the future generation. The adults are, therefore, anxious to transmit to this group society’s cherished values and life styles. Consequently, there is a lot of pressure upon the youth in an effort to make them conform to the standards and requirements of the community, especially when a large proportion among them become threateningly uncongenial.
This writer names two key issues African young people are facing today (true in most places around the world): the identity crisis and the job crisis. About the former he says:
The search for personal identity is crucial in the life of every young person. The identity crisis can be said to be the cause of practically all the problems affecting youth. Their rebellion and disobedience against authority, and in particular their parents, is not so much to defy them but a search for their own identity and autonomy.
Professor Chepkwony lets two young people speak for themselves. First a sixteen-year-old boy expresses disappointment:
I am always frustrated. I’m in love and there’s no girl. I’m overcharged and there’s no outlet. I look for a chance to act, to flex my muscles, to feel my strength. I can’t talk about it with my parents. I want to learn the bitter from the sweet by tasting, not talking. I hunger for experience; they feed me explanations.
A seventeen-year-old girl adds her thoughts about herself and relationships:
Everyday I ask myself why I am not the person I would like to be. My relationship with myself is a very unhappy one. I am tempermental, a person of many moods. I pretend so people cannot discern it. This is what I hate most about my life. I always act not like my true self. Fundamentally, I am a friendly person. But my teachers think I am cold. I hate all of them so much that I just want to say, ‘To hell with you superior egotistical people. I am as good as you.’ When I am with people who have confidence in me, I do good work. With those who treat me as an accessory to a machine, I become stupid. All I really want of life is to have someone who can accept me as I am.
For this writer, “these examples epitomize the struggles African youth undergo in their unceasing search for identity. At such moments, more than anything else, they yearn for acceptance, support and the right role models to emulate in their search for personal identity.”
But youth are not just engaged in personal struggles. They are contributing to world events. From South Africa, Agrippa Khathide writes Youth Power, 1990: 10-11):
The world is young. Social scientists tell us that 60 percent of the world’s population is under the age of 30…There was a time when young people were thought to be insignificant, powerless and followers of their elders in everything, but the occurrences of the 20th century suggest otherwise…Young people are looking for something to live for or perhaps even to die for…
Youth power can be seen in different spheres of life, e.g. politics, commerce, education, in the church, etc. We have seen young people exercising their political muscle to the amazement of their elders. The Beijing saga is just one example…
Here in our home country thousands of children took to the streets in 1976 to protest against inferior education. The protest started in Soweto and spread to other parts of the country…A new generation of militants emerged. Young people committed themselves unreservedly to a struggle for a democratic future.
Youth around the world possess a common human nature and youthful spirit. Globalization has brought a common language and common set of cultural icons. Still, they differ greatly according to their situation, geographically, economically, and socially. Those who educate, or work with, youth must enter their various worlds or subcultures and treat them as individuals.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What do you find to be most exciting about youth?
What do you find to be most baffling or unsettling about young people?
What are the greatest challenges facing youth you know?
What are they most needing from their friends and from adult role models?
What could you contribute to this Encyclopedia to further our understanding and appreciation of youth?
Around the world, youth are a significant age group, affecting their world now, and standing on the brink of assuming leadership of tomorrow’s societies.
There is much we need to learn about youth, and there is much we need to learn from young people.